It has often been said that the famous literary Collie Lassie was always played in movies, and later television, by a male dog, because males are supposedly easier to train than females. Interesting, then, that Toto, Dorothy’s male dog, was portrayed by a female.
Her name was Terry, and she was born in 1933 in Altadena, California, ideally placed for a career in movies, although this was not immediately apparent. Terry, a Cairn Terrier, was a painfully shy and insecure little dog, her chronic shyness causing her owner to seek help from Carl Spitz, a well-known Hollywood dog trainer from Germany, who had provided instruction for canine performers such as Buck, a Saint Bernard who played the dog of the same name in a 1935 movie adaptation of Jack London’s Call of the Wild.
Through one thing and another, Terry’s owner proved a bit of a swindler, and Spitz and his wife Alice ended up the proud owners of the bright little dog.
Terry gained confidence from Spitz’s gentle instruction, which comprised his own unique hand signals, which he had developed for animals used in talking pictures so that they could still follow instructions without their trainers having to speak to them. In fact, Little Terry proved so adept that when film studio executives visited Spitz to discuss another dog altogether, they were so enchanted by Terry that it was not long before her film career began.
Interestingly, one of her earliest movies starred Shirley Temple, who of course was later considered for the role of Dorothy Gale in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz. Another movie saw her working with Mickey Rooney, future friend and frequent co-star of Judy Garland, the actress and singer who, as we all know, won the coveted role of the Kansas farm girl.
Terry and Judy were, by all accounts, instant friends, resulting in a truly believable bond of affection between Toto and Dorothy. Despite being the smallest member of the cast, Terry is never invisible to people who watch the film, though almost tragically, she did escape the notice of one of the Wicked Witch’s hulking Winkie soldiers, who accidentally stepped on her paw.
Some say it was broken, others that it was merely sprained, but she was off the set for several weeks while a hastily-acquired double dog filled in for her.
Terry’s performance in The Wizard of Oz is about as subtle and skilled as a dog’s can be. Whether coached by Spitz or giving a strictly instinctive ad lib, Terry’s Toto seems a good deal more intelligent and self-aware than any average dog. Observe when Dorothy is consoling the Lion after the revelation that he is cowardly. Toto, in Dorothy’s arms, places a comforting paw on the Lion’s foreleg, showing that Toto forgave the Lion for having nearly bitten him.
So impressed was Hollywood by Terry’s performance as Toto, that the literary dog’s name became her screen name.